For sale: stinky neighborhood in southeast Atlanta

Waste Management wants South River Gardens. But why?

The company
that owns and runs the largest trash dumps in Atlanta has found a neutron-bomb solution to its problems with neighbors: Get rid of the people.

Residents and neighborhood activists confirm that Waste Management Inc., which operates the Live Oak landfill in southeast Atlanta, initiated talks of home buyouts in South River Gardens about a month ago — right before the start of a trial over whether Live Oak should be shut down. The company, which was ordered last summer to close Live Oak because of odor complaints and shoddy operations, is treating the buyout as if it's a corporate secret. Erica Cook, a spokeswoman for the trash giant, refused to say how many homes the company is looking to buy, or when the company first approached the owners.

But a buyout could affect a wide range of public issues, ranging from the city's scramble to find a new place for its trash to the fate of other nearby neighborhoods.

There are about 500 houses and 700 apartments in South River Gardens, which sits where DeKalb, Fulton, and Clayton counties meet. For years, residents have complained that Live Oak's odors are so bad at times that they don't go outside for more than a few minutes.

About a year ago, state Environmental Protection Division inspectors discovered some reasons for the odors. They found, for example, that sewage sludge wasn't being covered, as required by law, with a six-inch layer of soil. EPD Director Harold Reheis ordered that Waste Management close Live Oak by December 2004. The company appealed Reheis' order and spent $1.2 million on new odor-control systems.

But during the trial, which ended May 12, a string of homeowners living around the landfill said they could smell Live Oak as easily as before. Around the same time, Waste Management began approaching homeowners, some of whom were testifying in the trial, according to City Councilman Derrick Boazman.

"For those people [who sell], it will be a relief," says Joan Walker, president of the South River Watershed Alliance. "However, for the rest of us — and there are thousands of us — it won't be a relief."

The South River Gardens Community Association is polling residents on whether they'd be willing to sell for more than market value. The poll isn't completed, but Shirley Nichols, chairwoman of the association's environmental committee, says most seem willing to sell.

"If you told people, 'You can move,' there's no question that everybody is going to say they would," says Boazman, whose district includes South River Gardens. But Boazman guesses Waste Management wants to "divide and conquer" the neighborhood by making buyout overtures without following through.

"If they wanted to do what's in the best interest of this community, they would not have appealed the [EPD] order. They would have said, 'This landfill has finished its lifecycle,' closed it, capped it and went on about their business," Boazman says.

Landfill foes worry that the buyout offer signals Waste Management's intention to expand Live Oak.

"Those folks have the right to escape that nightmare," says Connie Tucker, executive director of the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice. "The other problem is: If [Waste Management is] buying out those properties to just expand further, then you'll have other neighborhoods in close proximity to the landfill."

Last Thursday, Creative Loafing faxed and e-mailed detailed questions about the buyout to Waste Management. Cook responded the next day by including the following statement as an e-mail attachment: "As you know, we are working hard to be a good neighbor. We will continue to communicate with our neighbors, ensuring that their voices are heard and any issues are addressed as a partnership between our company and the local community."

Sometime within the next two weeks, Boazman and U.S. Rep. David Scott, who sponsored some of the nation's strongest protections against landfills as a state senator, plan to host a town hall meeting about Waste Management's offer. michael.wall@creativeloafing.com